Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: unity

Simplicity of the church

It was a fine summer day in 1627 and I was strolling through Plimoth Plantation when deacon Samuel Fuller fell in step beside me. “The church officials back in England are saying that we have no business calling ourselves a church here in Massachusetts, because we have no minister,” he said.  “But a church is made up of Christian people. They don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?”

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Well, OK, the year was actually 1990, the man beside me was an actor playing the role of Samuel Fuller and we were in a recreated Plimoth Plantation, meticulously designed to look and feel like 1627. But I have no doubt that the real Samuel Fuller actually spoke those words.

Later that day, at a family reunion supper, I asked a young lady (a distant cousin) who also worked at Plimoth Plantation, if the modern Samuel Fuller really believed what he was saying. She hesitated a moment, then said “I think he has it in his head, but not in his heart.”

There you have the essential requirement of a church: Christian people. Not people motivated by tradition, emotion, social connection or intellect, but genuine, from the heart, born again Christians.

How can we do that? The short answer is we can’t. Jesus said He would build His church, The real question is how can we discern if a church is being built by Jesus or by people?

The New Testament speaks of believers meeting for worship, but there are no instructions as to what the meeting place should look like. Being as I live in Saskatchewan and it is bitterly cold outside right now, I am thankful for a warm building to use when we meet to worship. But I am wary when buildings become large and elaborate and are regarded with more reverence than the meeting going on inside.

The New Testament speaks of preaching, but never hints that the preacher needs special training, or that he should be paid a salary. The word minister means servant, yet a minister also has a responsibility to watch over the spiritual welfare of his congregation. But if he begins to think of himself as a lord over the congregation, he has crossed a line according to 1 Peter 5:3.

The New Testament speaks of singing, but never hints at the use of musical instruments. Entertainment is not an enhancement of worship, but rather a distraction.

The New Testament also shows that a close relationship between churches or congregations in different places and different countries. One of the warning signs that a congregation is not being built by Jesus is when it is totally independent of any other group.

I have known people who do church at home or who belong to small independent congregations. They appear to have good convictions but they are alone in their faith, there is no one else with whom they can have fellowship. And I have seen what happens to children from these tiny, self-isolated groups. They rebel. Some forsake Christian faith altogether, some find a home in a much more liberal church. They all blame their parents for their strict, legalistic attitude.

But they are missing something. A church does not become more spiritual, closer to Jesus, by ignoring most of His teachings, saying they were for a different era. The real problem was that their parents trusted no one but themselves. That is perhaps the greatest deception of all, to believe that I, and only I, am walking with the Lord.

This brings us back to the beginning. The Church built by Jesus Christ is a church made up of genuine, from the heart, born again Christians. A church where “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).  Part of being a genuine Christian is the grace to see Christ in others, in spite of our outward differences.

25 Flavours of Mennonites

When we lived in Ontario it would happen from time to time that someone I had just met would ask me what kind of Mennonite I was. “Does your church allow cars? electricity? telephones?”

I knew these questions arose because there were at least 25 flavours of Mennonites within a 100 km radius of where we lived and for many of them things of this nature were a big issue. I would gladly have avoided these questions because I couldn’t see what they had to do with being Christian, which should be the most essential part of being a Mennonite.

People were curious and they didn’t know where else to start. It was so easy to answer the questions and wander down a rabbit trail that didn’t lead anywhere, leaving the questioner no wiser than when he started and leaving me feeling that I’d failed to say anything really helpful.

What I wanted to say was that the way we use the things available to us in this world can reveal something about our relationship with God. But making rules about things results in a group that is impressive in their outward unity, but does not ensure that they have a relationship with God. It does not even ensure that the members trust one another; sadly, the unity is often only apparent to outsiders.

What I wanted to say was that the essence of Christianity is to be filled with love, joy, peace and all the other qualities described as the fruit of the Spirit. To do that, it is often necessary to avoid things that will feed our pride. Pride is a sneaky thing that tries to enter our lives in so many ways that no amount of rules could ever cover them all. We must each deal with pride on a personal level.

What I wanted to say was that the making of rules provides fertile ground for thinking that I am doing a better job of following the rules than others. That feeds my pride and a critical, suspicious attitude towards others. That would be to head in altogether the wrong direction.

What should I have said? What would you say? What are your questions about being Mennonite?

The problem of ethnic pride

I read a number of English language historical novels when I was young. The English heroes were brave, honest, noble and kind. The villains, often French or Spanish, were shifty-eyed, cowardly dishonest and cruel. I accepted this as truth, and, being of English ancestry, it felt good to be able to identify with the good guys.

Later in life I learned to read French and read some books of the same sort. Imagine my shock to find that in these books the French were honest, noble and brave, considerate of others, kind to the weak. The English were traitors, untrustworthy, dishonest, promise-breakers and capable of incredible cruelty.

Through reading a number of books of history in my adult years I discovered that the French had ample grounds to consider the English as perfidious, dishonest and villainous. Our school history books had been quite selective in the information they provided.

I concluded that every nation and ethnic group has this picture of themselves as possessing all the virtues and of other peoples as possessing all the vices.

Does becoming a Christian take care of these attitudes? When God calls us and we come face to face with the ugliness of our sinful nature, that is a humbling experience. If we repent and find peace with God, the reality of our sinfulness should ever be with us to prevent us from thinking too highly of ourselves. Thus, a Christian is a humble person, on a spiritual, personal level. But does that change our attitude about the inherent superiority of our ethnic group? Not necessarily.

This is why a congregation that is predominantly of one ethnic group is in a precarious position. We cannot lose all of the attitudes that we have soaked in since we were little children. There are rough edges that are a stumbling block to others that we will never be aware of until we mix with people of other ethnic origins who hold to the same faith.

We will be exposed to the rough edges that other people have. Through mutual apologies and forgiveness we will learn to appreciate one another, our fellowship will be enhanced and the gospel witness will grow stronger. People looking on will grasp that it is not a shared ethnic background that brought us together and holds us together, but a shared faith in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ..

Two shall become one

– But it’s easier said than done.

On Sunday, before God and 500 witnesses in our country church, a young man and a young woman said their vows, joined hands and were declared husband and wife. Our little church could not possibly hold 500 people, even with chairs in the aisles and all the way back to the doors. The rest of us sat outside in a large tent where we could peer at the open doors and get a small idea of what was going on inside. There was a speaker in the tent and the sound quality was excellent, except when it cut out for short periods of time for no discernible reason.  No matter, they are now married and embarked on a whole new adventure in life.

Marriage has unexpected consequences. It shows up things in our spouse, and ourself, that we were not aware of before. My wife found that the cool, laid back guy she married was pretty much a slob around the house. Dirty clothes were left wherever they landed when they came off. That was no problem in my single days, I would just sweep through the house on laundry day, gather them all up, sort them and wash them. That wasn’t so cool when there were two people in the house. As a bachelor, washing dishes was a once a week event. I had just enough dishes that there was no need to do it more often.

On the other hand, it seemed to me that when we planned to go somewhere my wife would start to get ready about the time I wanted to walk out the door. Then I would find something else to do while she was getting ready and when she was all set, she had to wait on me to do some last minute thing.

Before we married, we were both independent, with our own way of doing things. We found that it can’t be business as usual when two people are trying to build a life together. Things have to change. And change is not something that happens smoothly, naturally and effortlessly, even if you are very much in love. Sooner or later, you fall back into the old routine. How soon that happens often comes as a shock to your spouse.

We each had our mental picture of what our ideal wife or husband would be like. So when we found that the person we married didn’t really match that picture, we set about to help them change to better match our ideal. That is not the recipe for a peaceful and happy home. It took a long, long time, but eventually it dawned on me that the only person I could ever hope to change was myself.

Sometimes we learn from a bad example. At meal time during my childhood I occasionally heard my father say: “That doesn’t taste like mother used to make it.” I resolved that when I got married I would never say that.

Little by little, I have learned some of the things that my parents never taught me and I never heard in the churches I attended in my youth. There were things the preacher said at the wedding on Sunday that I wish I could have heard before I got married. But we were in a totally different setting; neither of us came from a home where we had the example this young couple had in their homes. Yet our marriage has survived for 46 years and we have the joy of being grandparents. There is so much joy that we would have forfeited if we had thrown in the towel during the rough spots.

 

Gossip

Gossip. talk or news about the personal lives of other people that is often not kind or true.

The above definition comes from the Harcourt Brace Canadian Dictionary for Students, © 1997. I think this was the best school dictionary ever, but it is unfortunately out of print due to Thompson Corp buying up a whole bunch of Canadian textbook and dictionary publishers and merging them into one. I also think this definition is better than any definition in a dictionary for grownups.

Christians may be particularly prone to gossip. We care about each other and when we hear about some bad thing happening to a brother or sister we want to know if it is true. Whether or not that is gossip depends on who we ask. If we ask someone who probably knows no more than we do, or less, “Did you hear what happened to sister so-and-so?”, that is gossip. And it will surely spread and grow into an even bigger scandal.

If we ask the person supposedly involved, or someone close to her, that is not gossip. If we find that the story is true, we don’t need to talk to others about it, but we can, and ought to, pray. If we find the story is not true, then we have a responsibility to pass that news on to those who think it is.

I learned that lesson from a minister many years ago. A group of brethren were visiting after church and the main topic was the disrespect shown to a visitor in a far away congregation. The minister listened awhile, then spoke up “I heard those stories too, so I phoned the person who was supposed to be involved. It never happened.” The others took that in and decided that was not an interesting topic of conversation anymore.

Wouldn’t it do a lot to build love and unity among brothers and sisters if we would all pick up the phone when we hear such stories and ask what really happened. We will often be left wondering how such a baseless story got into circulation. Even if the story is more or less true, it is likely that some details got changed or added before the story got to us.

The inward and spiritual grace

The following are statements from the Catechism found in the Book of Common Prayer, which was used for centuries by Anglicans around the world.

Catechist. What do you mean by the word Sacrament?

Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given to us by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

Catechist. What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?

Answer. A death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness; for being by nature born into man’s sinful state, we are hereby made the children of grace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Catechist, What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer. Repentance; whereby they forsake sin, which separates them from God; and faith; whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament.

Catechist. Why then are infants baptized?

Answer. Infants are baptized so that, being received into Christ’s Church, they may grow in grace and be trained in the household of faith.

There is much truth in these words written by Thomas Cranmer more than 500 years ago. And I do believe that many Anglicans down through the centuries did repent and were born again.

I also believe that a great many were not – including myself. And I do not believe that those who experienced a new birth did so as a result of the outward sign of baptism. There is much in Anglicanism that is good and beneficial, I remember especially the emphasis on reading the Scriptures in every service. But the teaching that the sacraments are a means of grace has let  many people down.

I agree fully that the sacraments are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. But it is confusion to teach that these inward and spiritual graces are received by means of the sacraments. I was baptized, confirmed, became an altar boy, took communion often, and never experienced the inward and spiritual graces that the catechism promised.

I abandoned the Anglican Church and the whole idea of there being any meaning in church and Christianity. Some years later, not having found satisfactory answers to the questions of life elsewhere, I began again to read the Bible. Finally, the Holy Spirit let me see my sinfulness; I repented and was born again.

A few years later I was baptized and became a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, which teaches that the inward and spiritual grace is the qualification for baptism. Likewise, spiritual unity in a congregation is the qualification for communion. Outward signs can produce neither spiritual life nor spiritual unity.

This is the historic position of the Anabaptists. The inward and spiritual graces are essential to being a Christian and must precede the outward and visible signs.

Am I a uniter or a divider?

During a recent visit in the home of a young couple in another congregation, the wife talked about the church her parents had attended when she was a child. The membership of that church is now down to the pastor and a few women; no man has been able to abide the pastor’s controlling ways. That pastor may well have a sound grasp of the Christian faith and how it should be lived, but he is a divider, not a uniter.

My spell-checker doesn’t like the word uniter, and I don’t much care for it either. I would prefer to use the French word rassembleur, as that carries the implication not just of drawing people together, but of drawing them together for a common purpose. However, rassembleur would not be understood by most English-speaking people, so I will stick with uniter.

Can a revival have an enduring effect if it does not instill in believers a united vision of the purpose of Christian life? I am thinking of the Western Canadian Revival of 40 years ago. It swept through city after city, bringing together people from the whole spectrum of evangelical Christianity to hear messages calling on them to deal with sin in their lives. I believe many people were genuinely touched and their faith renewed or restored. But were they united? I don’t think so; the churches remained as before with all their internal and external frictions and divisions.

The church of God is often in need of revival. Anything that involves people will tend to get messy. Many people do not see the problems, they need to be stirred and awakened. A revival that only seeks to restore the purity of practice as it was formerly will not be durable as there is no vision of the purpose of that purity of practice. Some people see needs in the church, but have no patience for the slowness of others to see. If they attempt to impose their vision on others, some may abandon the faith. Or they themselves will abandon the assembly of the saints and wander here and there seeking others who see things as they do. These people are dividers.

Menno Simons was a true rassembleur (or uniter if you prefer). He was a priest at Witmarsum in Friesland who was converted almost 400 years ago through studying the Bible. While still in the Roman Catholic church he taught against the zealous and misguided people who took over the city of Muenster, expecting the Lord to return and establish His kingdom there. When 300 people took over an old monastery near where he lived and were killed in the ensuing siege, the burden of his conscience became almost unbearable. He felt that some had left the Roman Catholic church because he had revealed its errors, but he had not led them further in the truth.

“I thought to myself — I, miserable man, what am I doing?” “I began in the name of the Lord to preach publicly from the pulpit the true repentance, to point people to the narrow path, and in the power of the Scripture to openly to reprove all sin and wickedness. . . to the extent that I had at that time received from God the grace.”

Nine months later he left the Roman Catholic church, abandoning his reputation and easy life. “In my weakness I feared God; I sought out the pious and though they were few in number I found some who were zealous and maintained the truth. I dealt with the erring, and through the help and power of God with His Word, reclaimed them from the snares of damnation and gained them to Christ. The hardened and rebellious I left to the Lord.”

A year later , a group of brethren came to him and urged him to put use the talents he had received from the Lord to build up the church of God. “I was sensible of my limited talents, my unlearnedness, my weak nature and the timidity of my spirit, the exceeding great wickedness . . . of the world, the great and powerful sects, . . . and the woefully heavy cross that should weigh on me should I comply. On the other hand I saw the pitiful great hunger and need of these God-fearing, pious, children, for I saw that they erred as do harmless sheep which have no shepherd.”

He accepted the plea of the brethren to be ordained as an elder of the church and could later say: “The great and mighty God has made known the word of true repentance . . .through our humble service, doctrine, and unlearned writings, together with the diligent service and help of our faithful brethren in many towns and countries. It has been made known to such an extent that He has bestowed upon His churches such unconquerable power that many proud and lofty hearts have become humble; the impure, chaste; the drunken, sober; the avaricious, benevolent; the cruel, kind; and the ungodly, pious; but they also left their possessions and blood, life and limb with the blessed testimony they had, as it may be seen daily still. These are not the fruit of false doctrine. Neither could these people endure so long under such dire distress and cross were it not the power and word of the Almighty which moves them.”

In the 16th Century, church and state were closely bound together and any deviation from the state church was considered subversive, even the peaceable Anabaptists. There were many other sects at the time, due to widespread dissatisfaction with the state church. The Anabaptists taught and lived a Biblical faith that answered the cry in the hearts of many people. Attempts to destroy this faith by persecution only drew more attention to it and it continued to grow. There were many other leaders, but Menno Simons was the one who was best known to those outside the church. Thus, the members of the church came to be known as Menno-nites.

The church is a faith community

Forty years ago the pastor of the church my wife and I were attending went to California for several weeks to take a course in church growth. He was really pumped when he got back and expounded to us how the key to growing our congregation was to target people in our community who had a natural affinity and tailor the culture and activities of the congregation to make those people feel comfortable. Somehow it never worked. That congregation has been defunct for a number of years.

We liked that pastor and his wife. He had some unique gifts and deep convictions. However, the desire to grow his small congregation led him to be quite flexible and ready to follow the latest wind of doctrine.

As it looks to me now, the fatal flaw in the church growth model he presented to that congregation was that the glue that was to hold the supposedly growing congregation together would have been something else than their common faith. A church that is held together by a common ethnic origin, or an affinity based on how they earn their livelihood, most likely their visiting among each other will naturally drift into those areas. That’s not necessarily wrong, But is it going to hold a church together over the long term?

All the clever research and marketing that goes into the church growth movement ignores what the church really is. It is a community of people who are drawn together by a common relationship to God the Father, through being washed in the blood of Jesus Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. That is the basis of a genuine faith community. so much the better if we are of different ethnic origins and earn our livelihood in a wide variety of ways. The one thing we have in common is that we are sons and daughters of Almighty God. Why would we imagine that a vibrant church community could be established on some other plan?

Another thing that is happening is that churches are sliced into layers according to age and every slice seems to think it has all the resources for mutual edification and has no need of the others and the others have no need of them. Some churches even have different worship services for the young and the old and both groups think that is just fine. It isn’t. We all need each other.

Those of us who are old need to see things through the eyes of the young. Those who are young need to hear the wisdom of their elders. Surely we have some wisdom to offer — or have we just been drifting with the tide all these years?

Note that I said we should have some wisdom to offer. We will do more harm than good by attempting to impose our wisdom on others. But if we have a mutual love and respect that transcends ethnic, economic and age differences, (and shouldn’t that be fundamental to the church of our Lord Jesus Christ?) we will all have something to offer and something to learn.

Dumbing down the gospel

I think it is dawning on many people that evangelical Christianity has shallowed out over the past generation or two. I will be so bold as to suggest some causes which are not often mentioned by others.

Children’s Bible story books: Parents have felt inadequate to help their children understand what the Bible is all about, and these attractive, nicely illustrated books have seemed like a godsend. But are they? The writers pick some of the more dramatic accounts in the Bible and attempt to weave a stand alone moral teaching into each story. This requires the insertion of editorial comments that may miss the relationship of the event recorded in the Bible to the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. The writer’s comments are well-intended, but sometimes presume an ability to read God’s mind to draw conclusions that are not even hinted at in the Bible.

Study Bibles: People feel intimidated at trying to study and understand the Bible, so many turn to reference Bibles that promise to aid them in their study of the Bible. The problem is that these study Bibles really become a substitute for personal Bible study. The point of view of the compiler of the study Bible is not blatantly displayed, yet it affects how they see the relationship of one passage of the Bible to others. Their point of view leads them to link passages that really have no connection to each other, to miss other links, and to use one passage as the key to understanding other similar passages that really say something quite different. It is would be better to trust the Bible to interpret itself and not separate verses from their context.

The desire for Christian unity: The desire is good, but the approach leads to downplaying denominational differences in doctrine and practice. I think most of us will admit that not all the differences were inspired by God, but to just abandon them has in many cases led to abandoning clear Scriptural teachings. True spiritual unity cannot be achieved by a spirit of compromise, but only by obedience to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. The “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is not the same thing as deciding to make nice to each other in public.

The remedy to all of these things is to become like the Bereans and search the Scriptures daily and to obey its teachings.

Words easy to be understood

As Christians we tend to speak in Christian jargon. Aren’t we aware that other people don’t talk like that? Or do we think it’s neat to have our own lingo that other people don’t understand?  The apostle Paul didn’t think that was a good idea: “So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air” (1 Corinthians 14.9).

We are not fulfilling the Great Commission if we try to share the gospel in terms that are only understood by those who are already Christians. Let’s not shrug off the lack of results by saying that people just aren’t interested anymore. The fact is that we speak a language that is foreign to our surrounding culture.

What is sin? What does it mean to be lost? What does it mean to feel convicted of our sin? What is the new birth? These words are all in the Bible, but they do not resonate with the mindset of a great part of the population. We could go into long-winded explanations of such words, but it is often better to tell our own personal experiences, in the simplest and plainest words possible.

Some Christians seem to feel they need to sound impressive when they write about their faith. It will likely come across as pompous, and boring. The opposite extreme – using words that are currently hip, can also turn people off. Sometimes a person will hear a new word, assume he knows what it means and use it in conversation. The effect often isn’t what he anticipated.  It is important to know our audience and to be able to relate to them on some common ground.

Slogans should be avoided. One that is often heard in our church circles is “We need the unity of the spirit rather than the spirit of unity.” I believe the intention is to say that we should be truly united in the bond of peace, rather than just agreeing to make nice to each other in public. But that isn’t really what the slogan says. In fact, it really doesn’t say anything at all. There is no grammatical difference in meaning between “unity of the spirit” and “spirit of unity.” The use of slogans can become a substitute for thinking. A good rule of thumb would be that if we can’t explain the slogan in simple, easy to understand terms, we shouldn’t use it.

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